Why We Ride – The Essence of a Road Trip

Patagonia


Over the many hundreds of hours spent in the saddle alone with my thoughts, I have come to the following conclusions: to travel is better than to remain in one place; to be master of your own destiny, travelling in your own vehicle, is better than being tied to the timetables of buses or the whims of other drivers; and of all the vehicles available to a traveller, the moto is king.

The essence of a ‘road trip’, even one of only a few hundred miles to the beach on a long weekend, is something I suspect nearly every traveller understands. The self-sufficiency, the ability to explore, to stop where you please, to get lost in the unknown, eating and sleeping by the road, meeting others whose paths happen to cross your route that day… Ultimately, it’s a sense of freedom.

But there is something different about undertaking a long journey on a moto – an extra essence. Anyone who has watched the iconic road trip movie, “Easy Rider”, or the beautifully portrayed “The Motorcycle Diaries”, will have a sense of this. So what actually is that essence, that special quality?

Words alone cannot convey to the non-motoquero the true experience of riding on two wheels. Robert Pirsig, in his classic motorcycle road trip novel, “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, offers perhaps the best, concise description:

In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.

On a moto, the rider is immersed in and connected to his environment. You feel the wind in your face; when it is strong, it buffets your head and even pushes the moto around the road. Smells from the roadside are immediate. Flies or raindrops striking you in the face bring your awareness of the world around you into sharp focus. The ground on which you ride is visible just inches below your feet, and every bump and ripple on the road is felt through the seat and the handlebars of your machine.  You feel the heat, the cold, the rain.  You taste the dust.

Just as the rider’s physical environment is tangible and immediate, so too is the human environment he drives through. In a car, you are hidden inside a box.  On a bike, you are in direct contact with those around you: they see you, the person, as you ride past; you can look each other in the eye; and you can speak with them, perhaps just to say ‘hello’, or ‘gracias’ as you ride by. A wave to a roadside crowd as you pass, or a family travelling in the open back of a truck as you overtake, will elicit smiles and waves back. A wave to a motorcycle policeman beside the road checking the traffic will almost certainly be returned – they are after all motoqueros themselves – and may avoid a document inspection. On a moto, you are a human, not merely a machine.

We travel because we want to immerse ourselves in the landscapes and societies we find ourselves amongst. As Robert Pirsig tells us, only on a moto can we truly be part of the world around us – in direct contact, living it and not just watching it.

And there is so much more to this elusive essence. From a practical perspective, a moto – especially one which can ride with ease off-road – gives you privileged access. Lonely tracks in the mountains and deserts can be explored. Pulling off the road for lunch and following a small path or crossing a field can often deliver the rider to a tranquil spot beside a river or breathtaking vista above a valley. Even in a 4×4, such exclusive access is sometimes denied. And motos are less obtrusive. Often I have settled into a roadside field for lunch and been greeted warmly by the farmer. I doubt such hospitality would be so forthcoming had I pulled up in jeep.

In towns and villages, the motoquero can pull up beside the road almost anywhere – to speak with a local, to take in a scene, to seize a fleeting opportunity. As we drove through the centre of Julliaca a few days ago, we passed the small trolley of a man selling freshly-squeezed juice. With a flick of the indicator we ducked out of the stream of traffic and pulled in beside him, enjoying an orange juice and him warm hospitality for ten minutes before moving on. You often can’t do this on four wheels.

Most four-wheel drivers fear what is under the bonnet. Motoqueros, on the other hand, tend to work on their bikes and modify them as a matter of routine – it’s part of moto culture. With limited tools, a rider can strip his bike down, change the oil, adjust the chain and engine valves and when needed, perform field repairs. This creates an intimacy between a rider and his bike (it is no wonder many motoqueros name their mounts); with a moto, the relationship between man and machine is a much more personal one than with a car. Over time on a long journey you get to know your bike – every noise, every change in vibration, the smoothness of the gears, the feeling of the chain running over the sprockets. You learn to know when she wants her oil changed, or when the chain is a little loose. ‘The modern-day horse’ is a title often bestowed upon a motorcycle, and it is apt; you live with it, clean it, look after it and come to know it intimately.

Travelling on a moto, there is an inherent and necessary simplicity to life. With room for little more than a pair of panniers and holdall strapped behind you, the motoquero can bring only the essentials and perhaps one or two luxuries. There are no decisions what to wear each morning when you only have two t-shirts and one fleece jumper. Likewise breakfast – for me, it’s porridge, coconut flakes and chia seeds every day. Everything you carry has a purpose. In the modern world we clutter our lives with accumulated stuff that serves little real purpose. The absence of physical clutter helps remove mental clutter – stress, distraction and sometimes even addiction. And the few luxuries that are on board are appreciated so much more.

Riding a moto is not always a comfortable affair. Clad in protective jacket, trousers and boots, I was sometimes uncomfortably hot as I rode through north west Argentina in January. On the Altiplano in the early morning, my hands can ache from the cold. Long rides can be tiring, with back muscles cramping up and backsides going numb. On a moto, there is no aircon, or a flask of coffee on the passenger seat, or a radio to entertain. But this hardship is in fact a blessing: it offers a challenge; it generates a sense of fulfilment and achievement; it makes reaching your destination all the sweeter. And perhaps most importantly, it reminds you that you are alive.

On a few occasions, as I have rolled into a windy campsite late in the evening after a long ride and seen a campervan-borne traveller relaxing with his kettle boiling and bed waiting, I have felt a sense of jealously. They can simply pull up beside a road, light the stove and open the coolbox, and all is done. But when I ride through meadows and smell the oil seed rape, witness the delight of the young children by the road as they wave to me, accelerate past a line of trucks labouring up a hill, greet a follow motoquero with a beep of the horn, and at the end of the day find a quiet, secluded spot in the mountains or beside a river to pitch my tent, I know that there is only one way to travel.

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5 Comments on Why We Ride – The Essence of a Road Trip

  1. Some lovely writing although how you can state so categorically that ‘motos are unobtrusive’ is somewhat baffling.

    I am acutely aware as both a trekker and a moto rider that the moto is an obtrusive means of travel, not least of all in some of the remote locations you mentioned that we moto riders are privileged to reach:

    A noisy machine putting dust and exhaust into the lungs of the people it passes; a machine which you cannot help noticing: an alien sight, smell and noise in landscapes which are otherwise relatively pristine and unmotorised; and a machine whose monetary value exceeds that of the possessions of entire families, perhaps even entire settlements, in the places we ride through; a machine which represents both an asset and a freedom which are so hopelessly out of reach of these same people that it must surely rub dirt in the wounds of their poverty. Exactly what part of this in unobtrusive?

    I hope you appreciate the counterpoint to your view and hope that you will enjoy the challenge of . I’d be very interested to hear your own take on the unobtrusiveness of the moto.

  2. Hey Mark,

    I appreciate your comments and challenge very much. I am starting to use my blog as a place to hone my writing – both in style and content – and provide a basis for some articles in intend to offer to magazines, so I need to ‘stress test’ these more reflective pieces.

    Unobtrusiveness is a relative concept. A child playing with a puppy in a Bolivian market is unobtrusive – in a buddhist monastery, quite the opposite. If I were writing about riding a moto in Nepal, I would concur with all your points. But South America is very different to Nepal. In Bolivia and Peru particularly, the roads are full of motos; in the context of what I wrote about stopping for lunch, you will often see groups of Chinese 125s parked up in a field where the locals are working.

    With such a vast amount of space on this continent, villages and towns are further apart than in Nepal – in some cases such as in Patagonia, dweelings are separated by 200km. Also they are not dotted around the slopes of the foothills. Thus distance requires and terrain allows for them to be joined by motor-able tracks. So even on the rural byways joining small villages, you will find little motos, often with three aboard, bouncing through the ruts and fording streams.

    Poverty is not as pronounced here. I am always conscious of the very evident expression of wealth that the moto presents, but I have never sensed any resentment amongst the locals – and they always ask its value. Instead, they appear curiously interested in my machine.

    But perhaps the most important point is that this post is essentially about comparing the vehicles which travellers use to undertake a long road trip. In this context, the moto is far more unobtrusive than the 4x4s and converted trucks that others overland in. Over the 34,000km thus far covered, the large majority has been spent on roads, in amongst local daily traffic, passing through villages and towns – not in remote unspoilt wilderness. In this context, the moto, even a big blue Yamaha, is relatively unobtrusive. And interesting, when I am in remote wilderness, I rarely see anyone – I drove 300km across the Andes on a dirt track once and saw no habitation, no people and only one other car. Like I say, the physical and human geography is very different here to Nepal.

    I’ll be writing more of these reflective styles posts now. Please pitch in and challenge, and I really mean that – it’ll help prevent me publishing nonsense to a much wider audience!!

    Safe travels, hermano.

  3. Hi Paul, read reply and agree it is about putting your mode of travel in context within the socio/ economic landscape your travelling. More importantly you have decided on your mode of transport and what suits you and most importantly you have made the decision to go for it, much admired.

    I have just recently passed my motorbike licence and purchased a 2004 F650gs at 43, just summing up the bottle to pack it all in, ‘good’ secure job of 17years etc etc. Dreamed of travelling overland to Australia , (as much as physically possible) just recently got residency after years of trying. Much admire your bottle to do it. I was going to say, have you any ‘tips’ but where would you start??

    Following your trip intently, Rob

    • Hey Rob,

      That’s what I want to hear more of – people stepping up to the plate and doing what they want to do, not what others think they should do! This experience in South America has been a great gift – the freedom of the road and the moto is something very special – at it keeps getting better! And whilst you have an eye on Aus, I can’t recommend S Am too strongly as an overland destination – I’ll do a post on that topic soon.

      I’ve been thinking of starting a category in the blog called “A Biker’s Guide”. I’ll never claim to be an expert overlander like Chris Scott of Ted Simons, but I was like you – quit my job, took my bike licence, bought my first moto and six months later I was on the road. So I think I can offer some useful observations.

      Also more than happy to link up on email and we can chat about stuff. Like I said to Jim in a recent comment, A great guy (who is now a friend) offered me lots of advice whilst I was planning, so I feel it is only right I repay the generosity to other riders.

      And sorry for the late reply – I was MIA from Cyberworld for a week in the amazing Cordillera Blanca (see next post!)

      All the best,

      Paul

  4. Since I wrote this post, I have increasingly found myself in more isolated, rural and poor communities as I ride through the central highlands of Peru. Mark’s observations and comparisons with Nepal are resonsating more. Whilst the poverty is nowhere near that of Nepal, I have noticed for the first time locals standing and starring at the moto and all my gear as if I’ve just landed from outer space.

    So I’ve amended my text in the post to more accurately reflect what I am trying to say. As Mark pointed out, simply stating that the moto is “unobstusive” is too strong. “Less obtrusive” is a more accurate expression.

    So thanks, Mark, for calling me to account on that!

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